Prejudice against rap is stupid

October 6, 2021 — by Joann Zhang

It’s 2021 — yet the perception of rap as being unintellectual persists, nowhere more obfuscating than in wealthy, predominantly white enclaves (ahem). 

This prejudice  amounts to a kind of racism and is singularly unreasonable. This is especially evident when Rap’s closest lyrical relative is the erudite, often highbrow poetry. 

Admittedly, there are head-banging numbers like Puerto Rican rapper 6ix9ine’s “BILLY” widely considered lyrically aneurysmal (“Everybody gettin’ pop, pop, popped, n- / The thing go rrah, rrah, rrah, rrah, rrah”). Even in these heavy-handed verses, however, cleverness surprises: “I don’t flock, yeah, nine to his back like Ibaka / Baka, not nice,” Ibaka being an NBA star presumably wearing jersey 9, “baka” meaning “idiot” in Japanese. 

Referencing niche tidbits from traditionally complementary interests of a given audience (here, the basketball-rap complement) is appreciated in poetry— take, for example, “Words for Hart Crane” by Robert Lowell, trestled deliberately with poet name-drops. Hart Crane, Whitman and Shelley are posts of reference and direction for readers as they navigate this homage and are subtly gratified by the exactness and esotericism of these references. Does 6ix9ine not attempt a similar technique in “BILLY,” with Ibaka and a glock?  

Even critically qualified groups like Cypress Hill remain underappreciated; lyrics from his debut single “How Could I Just Kill a Man” master a forceful urban lexicon with Personistic directness: “The hoota of the funky Buddha / Eluder of your f- up styles, I get wicked.” The swingy “u” sound mimics the lurching motion of lowriders, the classic West Coast chicano vehicle chuffing us through the L.A. clime and time. References “hoota” and “Buddha” in these opening lines (“hoota” being marijauna), linked by rhyme, evoke a New Age environment with illusory ease through (unappreciated) technique.

 Cypress Hill’s technique in these lines recall again Lowell, whose “For the Union Dead” unfolds in “Boston. / A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders / braces the tingling Statehouse.” Lowell and Cypress Hills’ styles are each Colossi in their own right, but Lowell, twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, is considered a genius, his verses combed carefully by scholars in faith of his intellect. Cypress Hill, as a hip-hop group, is afforded no such close study, which I can only attribute to that prejudice against rap. 

Neither artist nor listener gains from bias; the old blustering argument that there’s “nothing to discuss” in rap lyrics is feeble to begin with, and collapses next to Cypress Hill and similar rappers. Just as there is great intellect in poetry, so it exits in rap; yet Gerald Rivera’s infamous slap-in-the-face, “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism,” remains a popular, insinuated sentiment in America. Almost in response, Lowell writes, in homage to snubbed artistry in “Words for Hart Crane,” “consider why I took / to stalking sailors, and scattered Uncle Sam’s / phoney gold-plated laurels to the birds.”

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